Sedgwick County drug court begins hearing cases

WICHITA | Dawn Williams walked into the courtroom handcuffed last week, folded her hands and pressed them to her lips, as if to pray.

Moments later, public defender John Sullivan whispered to her and she began to cry.

Williams could have gone to prison. Her tears came because she was going home to her four children.

This is Sedgwick County's drug court, which just began hearing cases of people convicted of nonviolent felonies committed because of their addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Here, court is conducted a bit differently. The aim is to keep people out of prison or jail, not to send them there.

Even the decorum is more casual.

"Hi," Judge Joe Kisner said loudly to Williams.

"Hi," Williams said quietly.

Williams had pleaded guilty to her third conviction of driving while intoxicated last year and had repeatedly violated her probation.

But Judge Terry Pullman, who presided over her cases, referred her to drug court. The program has been receiving five referrals a week in its first two weeks of operation.

"Everyone thinks you have a pretty positive attitude and could benefit from this opportunity — but it is an opportunity," Kisner told her.

"Part of this is staying clean."

"Yes, sir," Williams said over her tears.

Drug courts have existed for years in Wichita, and in the Topeka and Emporia areas.

But Sedgwick County's will target some of the most severe offenders.

"These are people who we think will benefit from the program who aren't otherwise being served," said Kerrie Platt, administrator of criminal justice alternatives for the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections.

Those accepted can plan on spending 18 months to two years in the program.

"We're going to take the forgers and people who commit all of the crimes they do to pay for their addictions," Platt said.

For most, this is their last chance to remain free.

"If they fail our program, they're probably going to jail," Kisner said.

Participation is voluntary for convicted offenders and lasts 18 to 24 months. Those in the program are expected to appear in court often for monitoring. They have to comply with court orders and participate in treatment.

In court to hear the three cases set for last Thursday were representatives of the public defenders' office, the district attorney's office, a probation officer and three substance abuse counselors.

The program still has a few needs to address. The county is trying to finalize contracts on a central office where the lawyers, probation officers and treatment providers can work together.

"This brings together treatment providers, prosecutors and defense teams for the first time in a nonadversarial environment," Platt said.

Studies across the country have shown people who complete drug court programs are less likely to commit crimes than those who don't.

Williams, for one, was happy to be going home, alcohol free.

"I want you to celebrate getting out of jail, but I want you to do it the right way," Kisner said.

Williams nodded that she understood.

"I plan on celebrating — by having some real meat," she said, bringing laughter from the courtroom.